Saturday, 11 August 2012

Box Blight and Barrows. Alien invasion?

If you can have a post script can you have an ante script? I hope so because here’s mine.

A.S. At the end of the last  edition  I mentioned  the  quarterly gardening journal Hortus, well I have elevated its mention to the top of the page  partly to emphasise  what a good read it is and also to let you know that I write  a regular piece  for the  journal –  but don’t let that put you off. Take a look at

Welcome to the second edition of ‘Is this the way to Amaryllis?’. It’s the usual mixed bag of gardening stuff  but we start off with some unusual happenings.

Alien invasion?

Crop squares.

Strange, angular, geometric patterns have been spotted in a field of barley in South Warwickshire, England.

A local resident said ‘This is none of your student on a string malarkey, it can’t be because it’s square. The rest of the world has crop circles but here we have crop squares, very strange. ’ When viewed from above the  pattern is  said to be exactly field shaped. It is rumoured that this large scale pattern  can be seen from the moon  or at least from the Great  Wall of China. The local police force has  not commented  on this unusual spectacle. 

A local farm worker  sceptical about  any alien connections   blamed the weather, explaining  that the  straight lines were  the  ‘ tram lines’ that the tractors  made when they  were spraying the field and  the soil  compaction caused  the wheels made the barley grow   shorter but more sturdy or the extra light allowed into the row  also made the plants stronger and more  resistant to the effects  of  wind on  stalks and foliage  made heavy with rain.  – Oh well, it takes  all sorts!

The root of the problem?

Lavender roots still twisting from when they were growing in the pots years ago.

I was digging out some old lavender plants a day or two ago and as you can see in the picture  the  oldest roots were still curled in  the shape of the pot they were in  when they were planted.  I have been asked before about   what to do when planting  plants where the roots are well established and curled around in the pots. Do you just plant them or do you   try to tease out  the roots?

Research by Tijana Blanusa and Ross Cameron has  shown that one of the most effective  ways of dealing with  this problem is simply to prune  the roots  of the  plant  with  secateurs. This  root  pruning has the effect of stimulating  new lateral roots just above  the  end of the cut roots  and these roots will grow out  in to the surrounding soil. As  part of  their experiments  they cut off  up to half  of the roots  off    pot grown shrubs  as well as trying   a less severe root pruning regime   and in the subjects they used  , Buddleja and Cistus,  the plants  benefited more  from having their roots lightly pruned than  having them teased out at planting.   Common sense  has  to be applied as to how  deep you cut  into the root ball  but  with a  2 or 3 litre pot plant   you might   cut in to half the length of your secateurs’ blade in four places around the pot  but that is a very rough guide for people   who haven’t a clue  about anything. Use old secateurs because the grittiness of the compost  will dull the edge of your best, shiny Felcos. 
Does this curling of the roots really make any difference to the well being of the plant? The lavenders  in the pictures grew well  for many years and were only being removed because they were too big for where they grew so you could argue that  no, it made no difference in this case,  though how  much better and sooner they might have established  if the roots had been trimmed is open to debate.

Where this root curling is a real  problem  is when you are planting a tree. A tree is going to rely on a strong and even root system, well attached to  the trunk, to secure it in the ground and a keep it upright   in the strongest of winds. To avoid the root circling problem altogether there is a  very  good argument for using well grown, well prepared, good quality   bare root trees   if the  long term welfare of you trees is  a consideration.  

‘Don’t dig there , dig it elsewhere, you’re digging it round and it ought to be square………….’ 

So sang Bernard Cribbins in 1962   in his song ‘Hole in the Ground’. Some years ago I remember  reading in  the trade magazine Horticulture Week that it was now recommended that planting holes should be square and the accompanying picture showed a man planting a  Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Squarrosa’ ( a perfectly legitimate  name) . The  issue was dated 1st April.

Now I find that life is imitating humour. It is now recommended by the RHS that planting holes are indeed made square. Older readers may well be chuckling  and thinking of all the  successful plantings they have  made in round holes. My initial  response was to  roll my eyes  but after a moments consideration you realise there is a quite a lot of commonsense in this idea. We have  all seen how roots will run around  inside a pot  when  they come up against  the resistance of the pot  side so it seems not wholly unreasonable that roots planted into   a round hole  in heavy  soil   back filled with  friable compost  may well follow the ‘wall’ of heavy   soil around the  sides of the hole and not get  easily out inot the heavier surrounding soil. By making a square hole you will encourage the roots to break out at the corners. Sounds reasonable? I am sure this would not apply to light soils  but when you are trying to establish  plants in heavy clay soils anything  that might give your plant a better chance should be tried.

Blox Bight  (recte sic)*

Box blight is more likely, though not exclusively, to occur on tightly clipped plants.

Box blight showing characteristic brown, oily looking damage to leaves.

The  recent warm and undoubtedly  wet weather has provided perfect conditions for  box blight to develop at least that’s what I have concluded from the fact that in the last week  I have come across two outbreaks. One is  in my garden on a recently bought in plant and the other on a hedge, (the one in the pictures),  which has been established for some years. This observation bears out  the information given out in Beatrice  Henricote’s  thorough and comprehensive review of the disease in  The Plantsman.  New Series Vol. 5  Part 3  Pages 153 – 157.  In the review it says the infection by the fungus is rapid in warm ( 18 – 25 C )  and humid conditions. The rapidity can be judged by the fact that the hedge in the pictures was healthy a week previous.  The most frustrating part of the  Box Blight story is that when the  disease was first  discovered in  the nursery trade, rather than destroy possibly infected stock,  they  decided to treat it with chemicals that  stopped the mycelium growth and  inhibited  the spore germination but which  did not kill the  fungus. There are no chemicals available to the   amateur that can be said to control the disease. The RHS website will give you advice as to how you can best deal with the problem.

*This may well be completely misapplied but I thought it looked good.

Dog Blight on Box usually affects corner plants or isolated specimens.

Country matters.

Most of us either live in it, work in it or at least drive through it on our travels – the countryside. It’s hard not to notice the changes that take place , changes like  fields being ploughed, crops  germinating and crops being harvested. Behind these general views there is a lot of  detail going on   and many challenges   to the farmer being played out. With this in mind I thought you  might be interested  in the occasional  insight  into   farming and  rural life. Rather than rely  on folklore,  gossip and  speculation  I have asked  an expert  in this field - tsk! tsk! -  to write  a piece now and then to let us know what is going on.

So here  are the rural musings  of our agri-advisor Ivor Field.  
‘Amazing what a bit of sun can do – everyone seems so much happier! Even being caught up behind tractors and trailers collecting belated silage cuts is not such an issue. It’s time we took advantage of a decent weather spell and attempted to make some hay. This won’t have much nutritional value as it should have been made a month ago but we haven’t seen the sun since March and not a bale of proper hay has been made in the country up to this late July sunshine.  I must see if Bill, my ninety several year old baler man is up for it again this year. I see that the Winter Barley crop has started to be cut . These fields are likely to be followed by Stubble Turnips (for winter forage for the sheep) or Winter Oilseed Rape which will sown in the next month – a feast for the huge amounts of slugs that have bred in the last three wet months. Another thing that seems to have thrived in the wet summer to date are the brambles in the hedgerows. Plenty of flowers are unfurling in this bit of sunshine and if the weather stays half decent then this should be promising – just as well as the sloes are scant and the April frosts have rendered a meagre looking plum, damson and apple crop by the looks of things. Looks like it will be Blackberry Pie only and just Gin then, for the winter months! The wet has also meant a huge breeding of midges, mozzies and Horse Flies – good news for the birds but bad news for those of us who seems to be excellent bait for the blighters. Where’s the Avon lady when we need her? Apparently Avon moisturiser repels mozzies brilliantly. I will have to do with Eau d’Oilseed Rape as I time the last of the spraying off (dessicating) of the Rape crops which is more necessary this year due to the drawn out flowering of the crop, producing pods which are at different stages of maturity and not encouraged to ripen through the past dull wet weeks – luverly!!’

Many thanks Ivor.

From our correspondents………..

I have   received an email from Miss Ann Nicra from Sunderland who says she has   moved into a new house   with a very small garden. It is 3m wide by 5m long. She   says it gets quite a lot of sunshine  and she wants to know   how to get the most out of it. Ann, you don’t say if it is fenced round so let’s say it is. The area of 2 metre fence around three sides of this garden   is 26 square metres compared to the 15 square metres of the garden itself    so make the most of the vertical surfaces by planting climbers.  A spouting water feature attached to the wall or fence would add  the extra interest of sound but bear  in mind the  sound of running water can  be a very  pleasant sound but not necessarily if it runs continually  when it  can very easily   drive you crazy – make sure you can easily turn it off for a bit of respite. You could install a   mirrored arch or similar mirror feature to  give a greater feeling of space. If you fit a mirror  try to avoid positioning it so that the first thing you see in it is yourself. Try tilting at a slight angle so it shows more of the garden than you.  Be aware that birds sometimes fly into  a mirror thinking they have a clear way through but hit the mirror  and break their necks and die.

A small  garden can look very busy  with lots of  different plants  creating  a mini jungle  and that is the way I would go. Bear in mind light is  crucial  if you want to grow  a good variety of  plants so   try not to plant anything that is going to cast  too much shadow  over your small garden . Don’t let anything grow above fence height if it can be avoided.  On the other hand  you might want to go  very modern in which case  just  spread a load  of gravel around  and chuck a few  rocks  here and there  and hey presto  a minimalist  garden.     


I am out and about over  the next few weeks  so if you  want a chat you can give me a call on BBC Radio Oxford, 95.2 fm, on the gardening  part of   Bill Buckley’s  Sunday Lunch programme every  Saturday – just kidding- Sunday, 12 to 1.00.  Don’t worry if you’re not in Oxfordshire, with the internet  you could be   gardening on the moon and still listen in and  get in touch about your gardening problems. In fact we  had a caller from the moon once  who wanted advice on her garden because no matter what  she grew  or how she designed it    just had no atmosphere.  I will  be on air Sunday 5 and 12 August then I am off to Southend,  Essex  for  the ‘All about Gardening’ show at Garon Park on the  17 , 18  and 19 August. I will be part of the Gardening Question Time Roadshow sponsored by the Daily Mail and Scotts Ltd. Barry Gayton and me will be on the panel answering gardening questions and giving away garden  prizes. Its good fun, come and have a shufty.  

Prior to that I am  at Canwell Show at Sutton Coldfield on the 11 August with the Roadshow. Canwell is one of the best and longest established one day agricultural shows.  Come along, ask some gardening   questions  and buy a tractor. 

After Southend I am off to the Royal Norfolk Show with the Gardening Question Time Roadshow. It is a three day show   on 25th , 26th  and 27th August  near Norwich.

Looking good in the garden.

The magnificent Datisca cannabina towering at three metres high.

No flowers at this time of the year just magnificent foliage on Euphorbia rigida.

Bits and Bobs.

Wheelbarrows! You can't leave them alone for a minute.

Butterflies, beetles, flies and bees all visit the hundreds of flowers on each flower head.

Eryngiums are great for attracting wildlife.

Poplar Hawkmoth on a dahlia in the horticultural marquee at Bakewell Show.